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By Ellen Probert Williamson
As spring begins, April will at last bring us warmer days, new leaves on the trees, birds and squirrels building their nests, and violets and forget-me-nots starring the new grass.
We progress into the season of Lent and turn our thoughts toward the days of Holy Week and Easter in the Christian faith and Passover in the Jewish tradition.
But we are also faced with some seemingly frivolous occasions in this varied month.
Just how did the Easter Bunny become associated with Easter, an extremely serious religious holiday? How could a rabbit — a mammal — lay eggs?
The myth of the Easter Bunny finds its roots in the constellation of Lupus, the Hare.
In Greco-Roman mythology, Lupus was placed among the stars by Hermes, the messenger to the Olympian gods, to honor its swiftness. It is often considered to be the prey of the hunter Orion and his huge dog, Canis Major.
Other cultures had some different stories associated with these same stars. Ancient Egypt imagined a boat for Osiris. The Arabic people believed the four brilliant stars in Lupus represented four camels drinking from the river Eridanus.
In Anglo-Saxon mythology, the hare was actually a bird that was transformed by Ostara, the goddess of spring. To compensate for its new inability to fly, Ostara gave the hare speed and agility. Legend says that once a year, in the spring, the hare laid eggs the way it did when it was a bird.
So we now hunt for Easter eggs!
Of course, April is also notable for the worldwide and several-centuries-old celebration of April Fool’s Day. The origins of this seemingly ridiculous observance are somewhat obscure, but many historians believe they may be traced to Pope Gregory XIII’s decision to adopt the Gregorian calendar.
Previously, much of Europe had used the Julian calendar on April 1, but many people either did not wish to accept this, or did not believe it was a real or permanent change.
Those who accepted the change began to make fun of the ones who clung to the old customs and started to play tricks on them on April 1, which they termed Fool’s Day.
One of the first signs of spring in the supermarket is the always eagerly welcomed asparagus. These delicate sprouts have been used for food for more than 2,000 years.
Asparagus is a relative of the lily-of-the-valley and these two different plants testify to the great variety in the lily family.
It is hard to believe that onions, asparagus, yuccas and many spring wildflowers, including wakerobins, bellwort and dogtooth violets, are all really lilies, and calla lilies and skunk cabbage are cousins.
So many of spring’s flowers have wonderful legends and myths connected to them, but only one ever became a political symbol.
Violets were chosen by the French Bonapartists as their emblem during Napoleon’s exile on the Island of Elba in 1814. Napoleon was nicknamed Corporal Violet, meaning the little flower that returns with spring.
France was then flooded with postcards picturing bunches of violets. This seemed innocent enough at first glance. Upon closer examination, it became apparent that the flowers incorporated small pictures of Napoleon, his wife, Maria Louisa, and 3-year-old son, Charles, called “the King of Rome.”
The French government fought any reproduction of the violet for many years. This campaign finally died down, but violets continued to be fashionable for wearing for some time. The perfume firm of Coty introduced its most famous scent, violet sec, at about this time.
Violets are in many varieties and shades of blue, lavender, purple and white. They come in many sizes, some scented and some not.
Most people don’t realize that pansies are really violets and the product of many years of hybridization. A spring garden would hardly be complete without them. Their little faces have earned them many endearing names such as hartsease, little grandmothers, johnny-jump-up and lady’s delight.
It is recorded that when Cadillac first landed from his voyage from Quebec in 1701 in the area that is now Detroit, he brought along a gardener whose duty it was to be to lay out orchards and gardens.
He found there thousands of early spring wildflowers in woods, fields and along the lakeshore that already provided a vast, natural, beautiful garden.
The many colored and different size blossoms of the iris family are among the plants we think of as symbols of spring.
Iris was the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology. She was the messenger from the other gods and a link between Olympus and the mortals of Earth in that she touched both Earth and sky.
The history of the iris goes back for thousands of years. Its roots were among the botanical booty that Thutmosis I took to Egypt in 1590 B.C. as part of a collection of medicinal plants.
There are various English names for the iris, including flag, orris and flowerdeluce (which in France is fleur delys,) the national flower.
Iris powder, or orris as it is often called, is made from its roots. This was a household necessity before and during the Middle Ages. It was used in medicines, cosmetics and various other ways.
Iris is the flower of France and of both Florence and Tuscany in Italy. It vies with the peony and the chrysanthemum as the representative flower of Japan.
It was used as an ancient cure-all for ague, shivering, epilepsy, loose teeth, earaches and snakebite.
In poetry, the iris is often used to symbolize or describe the sky at sunrise, sunset and in the colors of the rainbow.
Early spring is a bouquet of blossoming of fruit trees, dogwood, wild flowers and garden blooms, so many visual and edible treats heralding a beautiful summer season yet to come.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.